Cows have a reputation, generally well deserved, of being sympathetic and easy going characters. One only has to watch the orderly lines ambling dutifully to and from the dairies each morning and night, often unsupervised, to understand this.
Cows eat grass and convert it into protein by way of a Byzantine agglomeration of stomachs. It is a miraculous, yet time consuming achievement, and one suspects that they have neither the hours in the day nor the inclination to disturb their digestive processes to bother engaging with the world in any other way.
It helps that by and large our goals and the goals of cows tend to align in a mutually beneficial and agreeable manner. (Unlike the goals of say pigs, and goats, which I dare say we may never truly fathom). But like all generalisations, there are always exceptions to keep us from sinking into complacency. So, let me tell you about Paulette.
Being a house cow on this farm is not so bad. You get a bucket of chaff sweetened with molasses for breakfast, you have a one on one opportunity to raise any grievances or suggestions with the establishment and have them dealt with expeditiously, you get the pressure taken off a full udder, and you always get first chop at the juiciest grass.
In fact, over the years, Suki and Molly have clearly enjoyed the gig. When their slot comes up on the roster, I find them waiting every morning at the gate, eager to get on with the job at hand. Milking these two girls has yielded some of my most joyful and contented moments on this farm, made even better by the fact it takes a mere 30 minutes in the morning from absolute start to finish. (You can read more about the Molly’s story here).
Anyhow, I digress. Back to Paulette. Paulette holds a very special place in my heart because she was the first calf that I ever had. However, I didn’t buy her.
Rather, one day, a generous and insightful neighbour decided I needed a good talking to.
“What are you DOING up here?” he said as he leant over the gate, perhaps in parts mystified and bemused by my regular working trips into Melbourne and beyond. “It’s time you raised your own cattle”.
The next day Paulette was delivered to the farm with this emphatic and unambiguous instruction.
“Right, here’s one to get you started…now bloody get on with it!”
And so I did.
Paulette was a generous gift indeed. She has a serious pedigree and exhibits what the stock agents lovingly refer to as “good dairyness”. She was special, and I had big plans for her. She would be the queen of the house cows, the most reliable, most amenable, best performing cow on the farm, her abundant milk would help to raise endless litters of happy and healthy piglets, and we would love her for it. She got the best of everything.
In hindsight, this did neither of us any favours. For when the time came to be milked after the birth of her first calf, a gorgeous little bull, she was having none of it.
“Buggar off”, she said, “and leave us alone. And here, take your fancy schmancy bucket of chaff with you!”
This was not part of the plan.
I cajoled, I fretted (what if she got mastitis from all the milk?), I tempted, I pushed and shoved and swore and three days later I was crying from sheer frustration.
I couldn’t help feeling that somehow this was personal. She’d had practice runs through the dairy before, eaten chaff from the feed boxes, I’d stroked her udder many times to get her used to the feel of my hands.
The one time I actually managed to get her into the dairy (which required tackling the calf and putting it behind the feed box) she stood there for hours, refusing to put her head into the bale. However the moment I turned my back, I could hear her quickly and easily slip her head through and start chomping away contentedly on the chaff, not a care in the world. I would swivel on my heels and try to slam the bale shut, but she was unfailingly faster than me, and what’s more, would fix me with a gaze of such surliness, verging on contempt, that I must admit I was taken aback.
Paulette, I said, I thought we loved each other – what the heck is going on here?
I decided to talk to one of my neighbours about the situation; she is a sympathetic woman who often surprises me with her interesting perspectives.
“She’s just had a calf”, she said, “and her hormones are raging! It happens with some cows. Give her a chance and she’ll settle down. Just keep quietly persisting and things will change”.
I did, and she was right. Thank goodness for neighbours.
Now Paulette will go into the dairy, I won’t say easily, but she will do it. I can see that it will never be as straightforward as with Suki and Molly for Paulette, by nature, is fundamentally an ornery old cow. However, we have learned how to work with each other. She respects that her job is to be milked, and I can respect that she needs to do this job without subjugating her strong sense of independence and pride. Our goals and aims have once again realigned, and my understanding is all the better for it.
It’s interesting isn’t it, that sometimes we get so caught up with trying to impose our way of thinking on animals, that we forget that the onus is really on us to try and think like them, as Temple Grandin so effectively showed us.
The experience left me feeling a tiny bit chastened, but also significantly enlightened.
Never since then have I felt frustrated with an animal, let alone cried because of it ( oh okay, apart from a tiny little weep when the pigs trashed the vege garden). They are just doing as animals will do.
For someone who spent a lot of their pre farm life rushing around and trying to bend things to their will, this is a great lesson.
Things will be as they will be, and when dealing with animals, if you want things to change, it will take time and space and understanding.
Even more important is to wear it all lightly for in the end this too will pass.
Or as the French say, so perfectly and eloquently, the situation may be hopeless, but it is not serious.
And that, right there, is damn good advice.